Writing in Lincoln's footsteps

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; E01

He pictures the tall man in the stovepipe hat walking at dusk through the fallen leaves, coming slowly down the winding path, past those two stone mausoleums, pausing before the one with the dark iron gate.

The grieving man would doff his hat, duck his head, and enter alone, to stand for a moment by the child he'd lost in the White House in the winter of 1862.

Here, more than any other place in Washington, by this secluded tomb carved into a hillside in Georgetown's Oak Hill Cemetery, historian James L. Swanson feels the mournful essence of Abraham Lincoln.

Here stands Lincoln, weighed down by the agony of the Civil War, the deaths of two of his children, and the loneliness of a president seeking to preserve a nation ripping itself apart.

And here Swanson, 51, a pale man with dark hair and eyebrows - a voyager into the past - gets closest to the center of his journeys.

But this is a sunny autumn day almost 150 years removed from the war, and the best-selling Washington author is standing outside the mausoleum, recounting the burial of 11-year-old Willie Lincoln. He is wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses, a dark raincoat, dark pants and dark shoes, and looks more like a cop than a scholar.

"Lincoln didn't want to bury Willie in Washington permanently," Swanson is saying, "because he expected to go home to Illinois in March 1869 at the end of his second term."

What Lincoln did not expect was that he would be assassinated in 1865, and that his body and Willie's would be taken home together in a funeral that Swanson argues was "the most extraordinary public event in American history."

Imagine what it felt like after Sept. 11, 2001, he says, and after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "and multiply those emotions several fold. . . .That's how intense it was."

That 1,600-mile, 18-day journey from Lincoln's deathbed in a boardinghouse across the street from Ford's Theatre to Springfield, Ill., is but one part of Swanson's new book, "Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse."

But it makes up the better-known and more wrenching segment of his portrait of Lincoln and the Confederate president amid the closing scenes of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Davis's flight from Richmond as the Southern rebellion crumbled, his defiant postwar life and his subsequent disappearance from the war's modern iconography make for a good yarn. Yet it is the nation's tortured farewell to its fallen "Father Abraham" that is the most gripping part of Swanson's account.

In the White House, where Lincoln was embalmed and his autopsy conducted, bleachers were erected in the East Room to accommodate all the mourners for Lincoln's funeral service there.

During the stop in New York City, women tried to kiss the president's lips, though he had been dead for nine days. In Brocton, N.Y., a delegation of sobbing women was permitted to kiss the coffin.

In the rain, by torchlight, by bonfire, mourners thronged the public halls, or waited by the railroad tracks singing dirges. From Washington to New York City, to Cleveland and Chicago, millions witnessed the event.

The funeral was also the culmination of a lifelong Lincoln exploration that Swanson began as a child. And that trip, in a way, winds up here, too.

As the afternoon sun sets on Oak Hill Cemetery, he grasps the bars of the locked mausoleum gate and peers inside. His voice echoes off the interior, as if in a cave.

He says he's not sure in which "slot" Willie Lincoln was buried. The tomb belonged to the clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, William T. Carroll, who was a friend of Lincoln's and lent him the spot for Willie.

Inside, dead leaves blow across the stone floor. Some slots bear names of long-dead members of the Carroll family. Others are bricked up.

"I feel Lincoln at this place," Swanson says. "I can just imagine Lincoln probably coming down this path. . . . I can just see him coming around that bend."

Memento mori

Early on the morning of April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton stood alone in the back bedroom of the Petersen boarding house on 10th Street NW, Swanson recounted in his 2006 assassination bestseller, "Manhunt."

Abraham Lincoln had just died there of the gunshot wound inflicted the evening before by John Wilkes Booth. And after a nine-hour death struggle, the president's naked body was stretched across a bed under the covers.

Stanton closed the window blinds, leaned over the president's head and cut a small sheaf of Lincoln's coarse brown hair. He put the hair in a white envelope, signed his name, then wrote: "To Mrs. Welles."

The hair was intended as a keepsake for Mary Jane Welles, wife of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. She was a friend of the president's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and had helped nurse the dying Willie Lincoln three years before.

One recent afternoon, Swanson stood in his Capitol Hill home and held a framed display that contains the hair, the envelope and the dried flowers Mrs. Welles saved from Lincoln's coffin at his White House funeral service.

The items, once in the collection of Malcolm Forbes, were acquired several years ago from a rare-book dealer friend, Swanson said.

These are the kinds of objects he uses to transport himself to the past - venerable things he collects that take him from what he calls his "earth life."

He has others.

The silk patch of actress Laura Keene's dress stained with Lincoln's blood. She had been performing in "Our American Cousin," the play Lincoln was watching. She rushed to the presidential box after the shooting and held the president's bleeding head in her lap.

"Having this in my hands made that scene come alive in my imagination," Swanson said. "Lincoln touched this. . . . His head rested on this fabric. It's indescribably moving."

The bronze mask of Lincoln's cleanshaven face cast by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the 1880s, from an original plaster mask made by Leonard Volk in 1860. "This is exactly what Abraham Lincoln looked like," Swanson said. "It's eerie."

The 1864 black sculpture of Lincoln's head, done from life, that stands in a corner of his living room. Lincoln, with bags under his eyes, looks preoccupied, careworn. "At night, when the shadows come through the room, " Swanson said, "it almost feels like Lincoln is here.''

There is also the assassination-night theater playbill. The flagpole from the hearse that carried Lincoln's body in New York. And the Booth wanted poster Swanson bought for $2,000 when he was in high school.

Born on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Swanson must have been an unusual kid. This was the money he earned mowing lawns, and he used it to buy . . . memorabilia?

"I figured I'd keep this longer than some used car," he said.

Besides, "when I touch these things, history comes alive," he said. "I feel like I'm there."

"I couldn't write my books if I didn't have access to the original artifacts, if I couldn't touch them, examine them," he said.

Swanson, who is married and has two young boys, is a lawyer and senior legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He grew up in Chicago, where his father, a history buff, ran a cookie factory.

As a child, Swanson often went to the Chicago Historical Society, which had a spooky display of the actual deathbed and furniture from the Petersen House.

"There was a button recessed in the wall," he recalled. "If you pushed that button a sombre man's voice would come on and tell . . . the story of the night Lincoln was shot."

In this very bed . . .

As an adult, Swanson spent countless hours writing in Ford's Theatre, seeking a cosmic "glimpse" of that night.

But those were tragic times.

"Reading about death in the Civil War, and assassination and murder, can create a kind of a brooding mood," he said. "Sometimes I can feel a cloud hovering over me."

To brighten things, Swanson said, he throws book parties. He has hosted them for fellow author and friend Vincent Bugliosi, former House speaker Dennis Hastert and retired U.S. senator George McGovern.

He also has a project in the works about the Booth family with actor Kevin Bacon, has shown actor Liam Neeson his collection and is acquainted with Conan O'Brien, who Swanson said is an avid student of Lincoln.

O'Brien went along on one of Swanson's private April 14 assassination-night walking tours of the area around Ford's. Actors Ben Stiller and Richard Dreyfus also have taken the tour, Swanson said.

One year, the tour was accompanied by a band of Civil War era musicians who played period music, then taps at 10:15 p.m., the moment of Booth's attack.

Often, he said, they will leave lilacs on the steps of the Petersen House - a reference to poet Walt Whitman's Lincoln elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands. . .

History on every block

One recent fall evening, the lights were turned low inside Ford's Theatre, except for the spotlight onstage.

Although the theater's interior is a re-creation of the original, it looked as it did that night in 1865. The empty presidential box draped in U.S. flags. The red-upholstered rocking chair. The balcony, like the one from which Booth jumped.

About 100 people sat in the seats, many holding copies of "Manhunt" or "Bloody Crimes," waiting to hear Swanson speak. Among them was Colleen LaMay of Warrenton and her 12-year-old son, Cole.

They had moved to the area from Idaho a few weeks before, and both had become enthralled by the assassination. LaMay said she had been "riveted" by "Manhunt." Cole held a version for young people.

They had just walked along 10th Street, where the mortally wounded Lincoln was carried, passed by the Petersen House, and now were sitting in Ford's.

"Every block in this town seems to emanate [from] the past," LaMay said. "You live in the past and the present in a way that we don't in the West."

As they sat in the dim light, they were a few feet from where Booth jumped to the stage, and from the presidential box, where Lincoln slumped in the red rocker and a woman had screamed, "The president is shot!"

"It's sad," Cole LaMay said, "and . . . really interesting."

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